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Coronavirus leaves Japan and South Korea short of Chinese workers

Laborers face prejudice from employers, while travel restrictions leave interns stranded

Japan and South Korea are struggling with labor shortages, especially in lower-skilled positions. (Photo by Takaki Kashiwabara) 

SEOUL/TOKYO -- Companies in Japan and South Korea face an acute labor crunch as the coronavirus outbreak disrupts Chinese employment in both countries -- though for very different reasons.

In South Korea, the problem is twofold: depressed business activity coupled with a reluctance to hire workers of Chinese origin.

Ahn and Choi are among those impacted by the outbreak. On Wednesday, the two men were sharing a drink of Korean rice wine at a convenience store in Daelim-dong, the largest residential and commercial area for Korean-Chinese workers in Seoul, and commiserating over their plight.

Choi, 62, said he was fired a week ago from a hospital in Pyeongtaek, 65 km south of Seoul, where he had worked as a caregiver for a year. Choi is from Jilin Province in northeastern China, where many people of Korean descent live.

"I was forced to leave my job just because I am Chinese," said Choi, adding that he has been in South Korea for more than a decade. "I have no idea what to do now."

Ahn, meanwhile, said he has no hope of getting a cleaning job at a sauna or a golf course because people are avoiding such activities due to fear of the coronavirus, which had infected 28 people in the country as of Wednesday.

"Many stores and companies are closed due to the virus. I hope it goes away as soon as possible."

Korean-speaking Chinese workers are much sought after to fill jobs in sectors such as construction, restaurants, child care and manufacturing, as they are cheaper than Korean workers but still speak the language.

According to the Justice Ministry, the number of Chinese residents in the country reached 1.07 million in 2018, accounting for 45.2% of total foreign residents, followed by Thailand with 8.4% and Vietnam with 8.3%.

Even companies that continue to employ Chinese workers are taking a cautious approach. Cleaning Research, a cleaning service startup, said any of its Chinese workers who had recently visited their home country are barred from returning to work for two weeks to monitor their health condition. The same goes for those who had contact with relatives from China.

"We will make sure that all our workers can do their jobs by keeping sanitary regulations thoroughly," the company said in a statement.

In Japan, the problem is more of a logistical one, with many current or prospective workers unable to come to the country from China.

The problem is particularly acute for sectors such as agriculture and construction, which rely on Chinese "technical interns" to fill serious labor shortages.

The government-backed technical trainee program is often seen as a back door for foreign unskilled workers to work in manual labor in Japan. The interns typically stay in the country for three years, and are crucial for rural areas, whose own young populations are increasingly moving to big cities.

According to the Organization for Technical Intern Training, there were about 90,000 Chinese approved interns in 2018, accounting to 23% of the total.

Several regional representatives for the Japan Agricultural Cooperatives expressed their concerns to the Nikkei Asian Review.

"Honestly, it will be a difficult situation if the trainees miss their schedule," said Takayuki Fukuda, manager at JA Churui in Hokkaido.

Churui was expecting three interns from China's Hubei Province, where the virus broke out, to arrive in March. Even if Japan allows entries from the province by then, the prospective interns are not able to take the necessary training in China. That means their arrival is likely to be delayed or cancelled, Fukuda said.

At Iwai in Ibaraki Prefecture, which produces green onions and lettuce, three technical interns from Hubei and Sichuan provinces who went home for the Lunar New Year are unable to come back to Japan. JA Iwai is also expecting four new Chinese trainees in June, but "we are considering delaying their participation," a representative said.

In Tokyo, Takashi Maruyama at Shutoken Shouko Kensetsu Cooperative for the construction sector also said some Chinese interns cannot return for work from their holidays. He added that he is concerned about the new interns who were scheduled to arrive in the next months.

The cooperative sends about five to 10 Chinese interns to its member companies every month. "There has been labor shortage in the last few years," Maruyama said. "If the virus situation do not calm down, companies will be affected."

The virus may also hit factories. Some Chinese interns for Aichi Machine Industry Cooperative, which is located in the hometown of Toyota and its suppliers, are also expected to delay their arrival.

The cooperative's representative said it will consider taking more interns from other countries instead "depending on the situation." It currently accepts about 440 interns from China, Vietnam and the Philippines.

A representative at Gifu Chuo Fashion Cooperative in the garment industry suggested that delays of one or two month are not so serious, because such delays also occur when admission processes get backed up during peak times. "It's a problem for us if we cannot accept the Chinese interns, but situation would get better by summer," he said.

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